Many thousands of fans across the UAE and the Arab world were going wild on Tuesday as their team beat Spain on penalties at the Qatar World Cup.
But it wasn’t just Moroccans celebrating. The whole region joined in the jubilation. The Atlas Lions progressing to the quarter finals, particularly at a tournament hosted by an Arab nation, is an historic victory for the region.
Morocco had to work hard to get to this point. They remain undefeated in Qatar, having survived a group stage with Belgium and Croatia. Morocco is now only the fourth African side to ever make the it to a World Cup quarter-final, and they are the first Arab team to do so. In a tweet, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, congratulated the side: "Congratulations to Morocco for this well-deserved victory and outstanding heroic performance,
"The Atlas Lions today recorded an unprecedented achievement in the history of Arab football by qualifying for the quarter-finals." Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, also paid tribute: "The impossible is not Moroccan. The impossible is not Arab."
Achraf Hakimi was a star throughout the match and scored the winning penalty with a simple chip. Goalkeeper Yassine 'Bono' Bounou blocked two from Spain; his teammates rushed to him in elation when the winning goal was scored.
There is a significant debt of gratitude owed to families of the players. Familial ties are important in Arab culture, and a picture of Hakimi embracing his mother Saida Mou after the earlier victory against Belgium quickly went viral. She would have gone through a lot during the tense game, but Hakimi was probably also thanking her for wider reasons. She raised him in a foreign country – Spain, ironically – supporting him through his remarkable journey to professional football. The fact he came back to Morocco reflects the patriotism for which Moroccans abroad are known. Arab diasporas across the world will understand this feeling.
The story of Morocco at the World Cup is part of a wider wave of joy felt throughout the Arab world during Qatar’s tournament. From Saudi Arabia’s victory against Argentina, to a viral story of a UAE-based dentist giving a Moroccan fan a full set of dentures after he was bullied for having a "bad smile”, the tournament has given many positive stories to the region.
The effects of this optimism will endure beyond the tournament. More Middle Eastern countries will be inspired to invest in the game at home, and in the future this could mean less reliance on players being trained outside the region. On a wider level, more people will feel inspired to take up physical activity, a great help for people’s health.
It will also extend beyond the Arab world. Morocco’s victory is also one for all of Africa. The many football-loving countries that are yet to play at the highest levels should be reassured that they too can achieve what the Atlas Lions did on Tuesday.
The nature of this tournament makes the same global point. Criticism was levelled against Qatar from some Western pundits in the run-up to the World Cup, in large part due to cultural reasons. The decision not to serve alcohol in stadiums is a prime example, but many fans have lauded the tournament as the safest and most family friendly in years. Whether people agree or not, World Cups change country for a reason. Sport crosses borders and brings different people together. If it is to fulfil this mission, there has to be room for cultures to design games as they see fit.
For now, focus should be on the unity that sporting success brings. Morocco’s journey is not over. If they managed to beat Spain, they could well win their next game against Portugal. Even if they do not, they will walk away from the Qatar World Cup with a historic victory, one that will propel Arab football in the years ahead.